We’ve got ten ideas you can use to spark lively discussions in your classes, helping to build your confidence when teaching online.
1: Thinking time
When you ask a question to your class, what response do you get?
- A long silence?
- The same usual voices?
- Students saying they don’t know how to answer?
Give your learners thinking time to prepare their answer. Use a countdown clock or hand sign to show them how much time they have before you expect a response. Use sentence starters, prompt questions, or images to scaffold struggling students.
For deeper discussions, try pre-releasing a list of key questions for your students to think about before the lesson begins. They could draft a few ideas or key points and come ready to share them during the class.
2: Have clear ground rules
Some students dominate discussion both in the classroom and over live video lessons. It’s hard for them to spot the non-verbal cues that someone else wants to speak. Other students lack the confidence to share ideas. It’s difficult to get everyone contributing.
Setting ground rules means no student feels punished for over or under-contributing to lessons. The class can help plan the rules and sign an agreement to abide by them.
Guidelines you could use:
- Press the ‘hands up’ button to speak
- Only speak when you are asked
- Mute the microphone when you are not talking
- Ask for a prompt if you feel stuck
3: Be student led
Sometimes teachers can limit the opportunities for discussion without realising it. If you stick with a rigid lesson plan, try loosening up to let the conversation take you in unexpected directions. The discussion it creates will surprise you.
Younger students need support to build a discussion, but older students can become leaders in the conversation, allowing you to facilitate rather than run the dialogue.
4: Controversial statements
Who doesn’t love a good debate? Students love discussing their opinions about important issues facing them. Consider the students in your class and show sensitivity when choosing issues.
Creating a controversial statement for them to discuss is a great way to get them offering their ideas and opinions. Children often have very ‘black or white’ beliefs about the world. Controversial statements help them see that there are many opinions about issues.
5: Building comments
Have you noticed your class wait for their turn to speak without paying much attention to what others are saying? Instead, create discussion by asking students to build on what other learners have said.
When a student answers your question, write down the key points made. A Wacom pen tablet is perfect for handwriting whilst screen sharing. Summarise their answer and invite another student to develop this point further. Record the new contribution in a different pen colour so the class can see how the conversation is developing.
6: Use a stimulus
Using an exciting stimulus is a great way to get a discussion going. Your students will enjoy something different from the usual written questions you usually use.
Try using a:
- Drawing or image
- Short video clip
- Audio clip
- Meme or cartoon
Give your class time to consider the stimulus before the discussion starts. You could display prompt questions, vocabulary banks, or sentence starters to help them frame their responses.
7: Philosophical questions
Students of all ages respond to open-ended questions that spark discussion and debate. Create questions that specifically link to a curriculum subject or go with general topics.
- Is it ever right to steal?
- What makes you, you?
- Should you always agree with your friends?
- What is true happiness?
These questions create great discussions without the pressure to come to a final ‘correct’ decision. At the end of your conversation, let every child share one last sentence to summarise their position.
8: Devil’s advocate
Enliven class discussions by sharing the opposing argument to the one made by your students. This works well if the class tends to agree with each other without debate.
By taking an opposite or controversial opinion, you force your students to consider their points carefully and express ideas clearly.
9: Layering questions
Using a ‘low threshold-high ceiling’ approach to questions means every student feels able to join the discussion. Find an easy starting point that all students can easily contribute to. Develop the conversation by adding levels of complexity and subtlety using challenging questions.
This approach helps less-confident students share their opinions. It’s a useful technique with mixed-ability classes to get all students actively involved in discussions.
10: Written discussion
Some students feel less confident speaking, or struggle with poor internet connectivity. Include them in the discussion by encouraging them to type their ideas in the chat bar.
Watch out for comments coming in during the conversation and read them out to the class to spark further debate.
Building discussion in asynchronous lessons
Many of the techniques suggested here for live lessons also work with pre-made lessons students access independently in their own time. A shared platform like Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom lets them add their ideas and responses using collaborative pages.
Set discussion questions as a home learning task. Most platforms let you toggle the settings, so the student names are displayed next to their contributions. It’s a simple form of formative assessment to help plan the content of your next lesson.
Developing discussion during live online lessons is a challenge. It’s hard to create the feeling of a natural conversation with the delay of talking through a microphone. You need to be confident and creative to make it work.
But the results are worth it. When your students defend and debate their answer, they put more thought into what they are saying and notice alternate viewpoints. It makes for better learning for everyone.
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